Karen L. Abrahamson
Originally published in Fiction River: Special Edition Crime (2014)
Electronic edition published by Twisted Root Publishing August 2014. Neutrality Copyright © 2014 by Karen L. Abrahamson.
Cover design by Twisted Root Publishing
Cover images: © Andy Dean Photography|Dreamstime.com
The word came just as I was going to court, in the form of a pink spiral of paper thrust into my hand by the sweet-young-thing court clerk. She then turned with a perky smile for the lawyer next to me and tottered away on her platform shoes back towards the main court office. The lawyer was young, tall, good looking and most of all, male. Me, I was a forty-something family court counselor. So not her type.
It was 9:30 and the lino-floored hallway loomed full of well-dressed lawyers in bad-news-hushed conversation with their Applicant and Respondent clients. The quiet voices seemed to rustle around the baseboards like frantic mice and the air carried the noxious odor of sweaty fear. Some of the clients wore an omnipresent defeat as if they’d subconsciously already conceded the battle that waited beyond the courtroom doors. And these were battles that went to the death—the no-hold-barred battles of custody and access. Me?
Think of me as a slightly overweight Solomon. I’m the neutral one who makes the courtroom recommendations.
I simply accepted the message and slipped inside the courtroom as the call to order occurred. I stood with the others at the back of the wood-paneled room, inhaling the poison and angry perfume off the heated bodies. Family Court. It sounds so pleasant. As if families could just sit themselves down and come to some pleasant agreement. But that wasn’t the case. The cases in this room were the hardest, the roughest. The cases that tried every neutral bone in my body, for who do you recommend get care and custody of a child when neither parent is fit for the job and when children cared for by the state are passed from stranger to stranger as if they were homeless?
I knew. I’d done enough investigations into who should have custody of a child and who should visit.
Judge McHale swept his red and black robes behind him and seated himself on the walnut grained bench that loomed judgment. Of course the walnut wasn’t any more real than the justice he had to give out. Family Court is like that, sort of a thin veneer of justice pasted on the jumbled plasterboard remains of a family. But McHale tried, unlike other Provincial Court judges sentenced to preside over family court. At least this one tried.
He was an older man, nearing retirement, his blonde hair faded grey and gone thin at the top. His body bulking out around the belly as if to make up for the hair loss. But the best thing about him was his eyes. They were kind and he looked like he cared. I even think it was mostly for the kids.
He nodded at the lawyers and at me and then the court clerk called the first case. I looked down at the message.
Casey Turner filled the ‘to’ slot. That was me.
Merissa Sandu, filled the ‘from’ slot. She was the lawyer for the Applicant in case I was here on. Come to think of it, it wasn’t like Merissa not to be here right on time. I craned my neck around looking for Rick Hunt, her client, and his unrepresented ex-wife respondent, Natalie Hunt, or as she was known on the street, Mouse. Neither was present and that didn’t bode well, though perhaps wasn’t unexpected. Neither of them was exactly reliable. Then I read on and got the gist of just how bad it was.
Rick in hospital—serious. Natalie in custody. Set case over for 48 hours to sort this out.
What the heck? A little bead of cold sweat ran down my back. I wasn’t a lawyer. I didn’t work for Merissa Sandhu’s firm. I was just the government-employed Family Counselor who had done the custody and access study after mediation failed.
Judge McHale was referring the unhappy looking thirty-something couple before him to mediation, the lawyers thanked him, and I was pleased that I wasn’t doing mediation anymore. This looked like a bad one, the two parties both with their heels dug into hating the other for whatever discord their family was in. She started for the rear of the courtroom first, then her husband went after her, hands clenched as if, if he’d held a dagger and he would use it. Have fun with that one, I thought to the mediation staff. At least in my world I don’t have to see them together.
But then Judge McHale looked in my direction. “Ms. Turner, I believe your case is next on the docket but we appear to be missing a lawyer and both our parties. Can you shed any light on the situation?”
I stood to answer, carefully composing words for the courtroom.
“Your honor we’re here, on behalf of our daughter. She’s been detained elsewhere.”
I spun around at the unexpected voices and recognized Natalie Hunt’s parents, Quinn and Jeffrey McGuire, standing at the back of the room. They weren’t supposed to be here, but I guess they couldn’t help themselves.
I should have seen them when I first came in; they were hard to miss. Jeffrey McGuire had a buzz cut head, dark determined eyes, and stood about six foot six. He was an ex-cop from Vancouver City Police and still had the muscle across his shoulders, and the slow-hipped way of moving that went with years of walking the beat. Quinn, on the other hand, was physically an older version of her dark-haired daughter: just as slight of build at no more than five foot four, with the same overlong nose and darting eyes like a bird. There the similarity between mother and daughter ended. Where Natalie’s body and face held the exhausted defeat of her lifestyle as a heroin addict and prostitute, Quinn showed the restless fire of the endlessly driven. I had to wonder what role Quinn had played driving her daughter’s collapse into the drug addict’s oblivion. When I’d interviewed Quinn McGuire she’d been one of the most contrite mothers I’d ever known.
But the ‘why’ of how people get to where they do doesn’t really matter in my line of work. My focus is reporting the facts of what is.
As I turned back to McHale I felt the weight of Quinn’s stare on my back and a trickle of sweat run between my breasts. The woman was something and so was her husband. Formidable, sprang to mind.
“Your Honor, I’ve just received word from Council that the Applicant is in the hospital. I don’t have the details, but I also understand that the Respondent, Ms. Hunt has, as Mr. McGuire put it, been detained. Council requests the matter be set over for 48 hours.”
I left it there, but held my breath. McHale was an old pro. He could read between the lines, but he could also get pissed off enough to make an order in absentia.
A small flicker of a frown crossed McHale’s face. He didn’t like matters not to proceed as planned and he’d like it even less if a family court matter had led to violence.
“This is highly irregular, Ms. Turner. Please convey to Council that in future they should not expect a neutral Family Justice Counselor to do their job.”
I nodded. My sentiment exactly. Neutrality’s my reputation and they pay me well for it. I turned and left the court.
The case of Rick and Natalie Hunt was the usual sad tale of men and women trying to live together. My investigation and report to the court showed that Rick was a self employed plumber. He worked hard for a living and had thrown himself into trying to get a business running after spending his twenties running wild on the bar scene in downtown Vancouver. He admitted chipping a little H and to experimenting with cocaine, but all of that, he claimed, was behind him and had been behind him since his marriage and the birth of his five year old daughter, Savanna. Too bad it wasn’t all quite true because a little bird told me Rick was still using—sporadically, yes. But still.
Rick had met Natalie during his wild days. They’d both hung at the same grunge bars in the downtown eastside—Rick for relaxation and Natalie looking for the tricks she was pulling to pay for university tuition. At least that was the story she always told and that she told me when I interviewed her in her parent’s upscale home. University is pricey these days. Apparently so pricey that Natalie has been saving up for at least ten years and still has taken no steps to enroll. At the time of the interview she’d said she’d been through addiction treatment and was clean.
Of course that was the fourth time she’d been through treatment and when we talked about her time on the street she got this faraway dreamy look in her eyes that most junkies-on-hiatus have. She’d be back on the streets soon enough if I was any judge of character. She just needed this custody and access thing to be done with first. Because the one thing I would say about Natalie, she did love her daughter.
She was a rotten mother most of the time, fixing while golden-haired Savanna was playing in the next room and going out to turn tricks and leaving Savanna alone, but her daughter meant something to her. She talked about times when things would be better and they’d have the white picket fenced house and they’d laugh and play and sing together as if Savanna would be five years old forever. But she held on fierce to her dream whenever we talked of Savanna possibly going to live with her father. She wasn’t prepared to give up her dream.
And so the couple failed at mediation. They wanted the court to make the decision for them and neither would back down in their dogged fight for their daughter. Like ships taking on water, there were always going to be times when Natalie or Rick were going to go under. That was the sad thing. Neither one was good for their daughter.
The question I had to answer was which would be better.
When I got back to my office I sank down in my desk chair and considered the three additional messages from Merissa updating me on Rick’s condition. The chair shrilled each time I picked up one of the messages, each one more dire than the last. When I finally reached her by phone, Merissa, bless her heart, broke down crying. Not the hard fighting lawyer at all. This case had gotten to her, too. There was always one.
“He’s gone, Casey. The bastards did him in good.”
I knew what gone meant. To Rick. To the case. To the world. I inhaled the verbena pot-pourri I used to hide the omnipresent scent of sour breath and tears. “Hold on a minute. All I’ve got is a cryptic note that he’s in the hospital and Natalie’s been picked up. What the hell happened?”
There came a moment of choked-back sobbing and then the sound of deep swallowed breath. “I’m sorry. It’s just this one got to me, you know. I liked Rick. He was trying. I understood his desire to keep his daughter safe and I appreciated his willingness to fight for that.”
And I could understand that; I had liked Rick, too, as far as it went. “So what happened?”
“He was called out on a job, but it must have been a set-up. He went out to his truck in his garage where someone was waiting for him. His neighbors found him this morning with blood everywhere. He’d been knifed. The EMTs got him to the hospital, but apparently he never really stood a fighting chance. They tried to put him back together but it didn’t work.”
Another sob while I thought about all the families I’d investigated over the years. They were like a long line of humpty dumpties and none of them were ever going to get put back together again. I couldn’t cry about Rick anymore than I could cry for the others. Damned parents fighting each other and using their kids as weapons. The flipping courts played right into it.
“Where does Natalie fit into this?” I asked. “Why’s she in jail?”
“I hear the cops like her for it. She might not have plunged the knife herself, but she had the street connections and just last night she was seen at Rick’s place. Apparently they got into a huge argument about custody and the cops had to be called because of the noise.”
Typical Natalie. She never could do anything low key—at least that was what Quinn said. I thought a moment longer. “So what happens now?”
Merissa sniffled a little and then a deep breath came through the phone. “I guess it’s over,” said quiet and just a little too sad.
“So mom just takes the kid then?”
A sick feeling hit the pit of my stomach and I felt like retching all over the puke-brown carpet in my stupid pale-green office. “You guess? You guess? You let that little girl go with her mother she’s going to be in government care in a matter of days.”
“And welfare will place the child with her grandparents.”
“Possibly,” I said.
“Or they could just believe Natalie is cleaning up her act and leave Suzanna with her.”
“Yes.” Merissa sighed. “They could do that, too. They have before. Listen, I really have to be going, Casey. It was nice working with you on this case.”
And then she hung up and I sat there feeling violently ill, or maybe just plain violent at the idiocy of the system. I took a long look out my office window at the small pine tree growing in the garden. I’d planted it there, five years before after tearing it from a back corner of my garden where it didn’t have any room to grow. Here it had filled out and grown about two feet taller—my legacy to the court house.
I inhaled deeply and let the rush of air out my nose calm me. There was no place for anger at Suzanna’s situation. I was neutral.
And I was there in criminal court the day that Natalie was brought in to have her bail hearing. A sadder place you didn’t want to see. Where family court reeked of anger and fear and defeat, here it was all about despair and no one looked more desperate than Natalie Hunt.
She sat hunched in her spindle-backed chair beside her legal aid lawyer, her black hair a tangle around her face, her arms skinny and scabbed again as if all the badness in her veins had tried to come out overnight. She’d been chipping again, it was pretty clear to see.
It didn’t go well for her, though for me it went fine. No matter that she had parents who could offer her a stable place to live. No matter that she had a child. What mattered was that she had a record for drugs and solicitation. She’d been known, before meeting Rick, to travel to the US and Calgary to ply her trade. The Criminal Court judge just listened to Crown Counsel’s litany of past transgressions and Defense didn’t stand a chance. Natalie was bound over in custody. The judge’s gavel rang out nicely, hardwood on hardwood bench.
As the Sheriffs were leading her out of the glare of the court, she caught sight of me and an incandescent ray of hope entered her gaze.
It was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself.
I went to see her. Court holding cells are painted grey. Grey floor, grey walls and ceilings and in Natalie’s case it seemed they’d painted her flesh as well. In the puke scented cellblock she sat on the edge of an iron cot with a musty grey vinyl mattress and looked at me out of frightened eyes the color of mud. Her hands shifted and moved like two frightened, trapped animals as she scratched, scratched, scratched at her forearms and at her thighs.
“Hey,” I said, through the bars. “How are you doing?”
“How’s it look?” She said bitterly and shook her head. “This isn’t me. I wouldn’t kill Rick. They’ve got it all wrong.”
“I guess you’ll have to prove it in court,” I said.
Then her eyes filled with tears and she buried her face in her hands. “What’s going to happen, Casey? What about me and Suzanna? What about our dreams?”
Her dream. It was sad really. She hadn’t a hope in hell of ever achieving that dream. At least not in this lifetime.
“The court is going to have to make some sort of finding, Natalie. It has to make a decision that’ll be in Suzanna’s best interests.”
“But I’m her mother. I’m her best interests!” Her voice rose and I could smell the sour coffee and cold toast she’d had for breakfast in custody. “The court has to find for me. She hasn’t got anyone else!” there was panic in the movement of her hands now. Those ragged fingernails were digging through the fabric of her orange prison uniform.
“Well she doesn’t have Rick anymore, that’s for sure. She’ll probably end up a ward of the state.”
She glanced up sharply. “It wasn’t me who killed Rick. I loved Rick once upon a time. I could never hurt Rick.”
Which was a lie and we both knew it. She’d been trying to crush his balls in her hand since the whole separation began. She had even threatened to take Savanna and run.
But I let the lie sour the air between us and the sounds of the other prisoners disappeared so I swear I could hear her quick breaths and the serious pounding of her heart. “There is one thing we could do,” I said into the quiet. “So the state doesn’t take her.”
She looked up at me with another of those faint glimmers of hope so I could almost feel sorry for her. Could almost feel guilt.
It wasn’t really that hard.
As a Family Court Counselor I could draw up papers for custody and access when the parties were in agreement. I stayed late at the office the day I visited Natalie and really it didn’t take that long to write up a Consent Agreement between Natalie and her parents. Quinn and Jeffrey McGuire would become the sole custodial parents of Suzanna and her Guardians. Natalie would have access as long as she could produce drug tests proving she was clean.
The next day I took the papers to Natalie in the City lockup and she signed them and then stood up and hugged me, assailing me with the scent of institutional laundry and the bristle of her unkempt Nix-treated hair. She felt thin and pointy, comprised of all the sticks and stones that had been thrown around in Family Court. But that was over now. I set her aside, and smiled.
“It’ll get better. You’ll see. And just think, you don’t have to worry about Savanna now. You can have your life to do with as you want. You can even clean up your life and get Suzanna back if you want.”
She nodded. “I can, can’t I?”
I left her like that, living in hope while I knew that the likelihood of her getting off of the charges were relatively slim. The police had the witnesses and the motive, even if it was circumstantial. And even if she did get off, the likelihood of her cleaning up her act were somewhere between slim and none. Addiction is like that.
So I took the papers back to my office to where Suzanna’s grandparents were waiting. They preceded me into my office and we sat down and looked at each other, before I turned the signed papers around to them.
“It’s done,” I said.
Quinn looked up at me almost disbelieving. “But how? Grandparents don’t have any rights under family law. You told us that when we wanted to apply.”
It was my turn to smile and I met Jeffrey McGuire’s deceptively slow shifting gaze. He nodded his head.
“Sometimes miracles happen I said,” looking out at the small pine tree shifting in the breeze and thought of Savanna with room to grow and run and play like a child. Miracles with a little help from an ex-cop’s friends to do the deed and fix the evidence.
King Solomon is always touted as the wisest of kings, but he had it all wrong when he wielded the sword. It wasn’t the innocent babe that should be chopped in two. It was the two arguing parents who should feel the blade.
That’s what neutrality should really be about.